In the human system there is more than meets the eye when it comes to calories
To lose fat, eat fewer calories than you burn. This advice seems self-evident, but if it were really that simple, there would not be a weight loss industry, and there certainly would be no reason for CuttingCalories.com.
The problem with eating fewer calories than you burn equation is that unlike a car that uses gasoline, the human body is a much more complex organism. Cars are complicated, but they run on basic principles of physics. Human bodies, on the other hand, are complex. The difference between complex and complicated systems is a growing area of research in the United States, but the basic principles are the following: complicated systems operate on only a few, easily measured variables of physics. Complex systems operate outside of physics, with many if not countless, variables and feedback loops.
This brings us back to the purpose of this website. Calories in vs Calories out is a principle of thermodynamics in physics. While it might be necessary for weightless, just counting calories consumed vs spent is not enough to guarantee that weight will be lost. Even worse, cutting calories in the wrong manner will set a person up for future fat and weight gain thanks to a slower metabolism.Follow up studies on contestants that took part in the Biggest Loser TV show showed that the starvation diet and hard workouts had dramatically slowed down the metabolism of former contestants. Few people were able to keep the weight loss perinatally.
In short, while cutting calories is perhaps a necessary part of losing unwanted weight, how those calories are cut is extremely important for both short and long-term fat loss success.
The Core Assumption of Cutting Calories
The idea that to lose weight, a person must burn more calories than they consume, stems from the second law of thermodynamics in physics. The second law is as follows: “The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time. The second law also states that the changes in the entropy in the universe can never be negative.” In simple terms, this means that energy dissipates over time.
A car is an isolated system, and it uses the calories found in gasoline to turns that energy in the fuel into work. But no matter how good the car becomes; it can never turn 100 percent of the fuel into work. There will always be some loss in the conversion of fuel into work.
When early nutritionists started scientifically studying the human body and metabolism, those scientists turned to the laws of physics and tried to apply them to humans and the food that they ate. At the time, a calorie was defined by how much energy was needed to heat water from different types of coal in the use of steam engines. But nutritionists realized that they could use the methods of the French scientist Nicolas Clément measuring calories of coal heat, for measuring energy in food.
Using a method developed for understanding the energy of fuel sources in coal, became standard for that of food. For example, burning sugar produces more heat than kale, so it is clear that sugar has more calories compared to kale. The calorie can be measured by tracking how much burning food it takes to heat a certain amount of water one degree. Early nutritionists assumed that food worked like coal in a steam engine, the only variable was how many calories were in each type of food. This philosophy of food energy density is still the foundation of all nutritional science, however, in its simplification, it omits import details.
Simply, food was treated as any type of fuel. To scientists, gasoline and food were just different energy sources but functioned the same. This belief that calories in must be greater than calories out rests on the second law of thermodynamics.
Humans are Not Cars
Of course, living things are not simply mechanical machines like cars. Despite the simple fact that life is not an isolated system, there has been little to discourage the use of the second law of Thermo Dynamics in weight loss philosophy.
The assumption that humans are isolated systems is wrong. Humans can use many different types of fuel sources, including breaking down the human body to gain more fuel when needed. Humans can also store excess energy for times when it is needed. Cars do not have this ability to store or recycle itself to produce the fuel and nutrients needed to survive.
Again, complicated systems work on the laws of physics. Biology works on the rules of complex systems. Yet the two are often confused by leading nutritionists in the world.
Food Contains Information
Food contains more than just energy for powering our bodies. Food is also a crucial source of information about the environment existing outside of the body. Lots of meat being eaten indicates to the body that the environment is bountiful, and game is plentiful. Yet, a constant stream of plants, particularly tubers, means that game is scare, and times are hard.
Scientists know that food carries more than just fuel due to how our body responds to different types of food. Hormones can be measured after eating a certain type of food, and those hormones in the bloodstream change as the food passes through our system.
The hormone that is of most relevance for CuttingCalories.com is the hormone known as insulin. Insulin is a hormone that the body uses to signal that a certain food has easily digestible sugars that are quickly passed into the bloodstream. Because these sugars enter the bloodstream so easily, blood sugar increases quickly.
Blood sugar is the main source of energy for the human body, but like anything, too much of it will be toxic to cells. Insulin is a signal to the body for cells, particularly fat cells, to take the sugar from the bloodstream and store it as fat.
Foods that are low in sugars, do not trigger this insulin response because the food takes longer to digest, and sugars are released more slowly or must be converted to usable sugars or ketones in the liver first.
Not all Calories are Made the Same
Because our bodies respond differently to every type of food we eat, we can say that all calories are created equal. 100 calories of sugar will get a different reaction from our bodies than 100 calories of steak.
The simple fact that our bodies treat types of calories differently, is the main problem with using the second law of Thermodynamics for weight loss. The signals that food sends to our bodies makes a huge difference for weight gain, and for weight loss. In the long run, the sheer number of calories may make a difference in weight, but it will not just be for fat.
Weight is Not Just Fat
Often in the discussion of weight loss, we tend to only focus on the number showing on the scale. However, a 200-pound body of bone and muscle and 200-lbs of bone and fat, are not the same thing. The standard image of health is of a lean, muscular body. The image of a sick body is a fat and flabby body.
However, even though we all know that health comes with strength, it is easy to get focused on a single number to show our progress.
This focus on a number on the scale is understandable, but it plays into the calories in and calories out model of thermodynamics. The goal of losing weight is to lose fat, but to retain or build muscle. While it is also effective to use a measuring tape around the waist and chest to measure fat loss, the cultural power of a number on a scale is hard to overcome. The TV show The Biggest Loser is still one of the most viewed shows in the world and the entire game is based on the number shown on the scale.
What humans eat, has an impact on how our body uses or does not use body fats, muscles, and bones. Again, there is a lot of nuance in the calories that food contains.
How to Lose Fat
This explanation of what is wrong with the current mindset in weight loss philosophy might seem daunting, but it actually offers a lot of hope to those frustrated or shamed at having a hard time losing fat. Discipline is not about constantly counting and tracking every piece of food that passes your lips, its more about avoiding the foods that add to fat stores.
The main way to lose fat, is too not eat procced carbs and sugars. While this might seem obvious, it often goes understated, and major corporations such as Coca Cola have paid for billions of dollars in marketing campaigns to try and convince people that soda will not add to weight gain if soda is consumed in moderation.
As we have explored in this article, the body treats different types of foods in different ways. And the main hormonal signal that builds fat stores in the hormone insulin. Processed carbs and sugars are the foods that spike insulin the most and hence, they are the foods most responsible for excess fat.
This is, of course, a simplistic take on the subject, but the heuristic, the rule of thumb, holds true across almost every diet that has been shown to allow people to lose weight.
Bestselling author and scientific journalist Gary Taubes points out that what nearly all weight-loss diets share in common is that they all reduce processed carbs and sugar. He explains this on his website:
“So here’s the lesson, the moral of this story: before we assume that low-carbohydrate diets are just one tool in the dietary arsenal against overweight and obesity, and before we assume that everyone is different and that some of us lose weight and keep it off because we eat less fat (and more carbohydrates) and some because we cut carbs (and so eat maybe more fat), we should make an effort to understand the concept of controlling variables and look to see which variables are really changing and by how much. Because it’s quite possible that the only meaningful way to lose fat is to change the regulation of the fat tissue, and the science of fat metabolism strongly implies that the best way to do that, if not the only meaningful way, is by reducing the amount of carbohydrates consumed and/or improving the quality of those carbs we do consume.”
Simply, the best way to cut the calories that cause fat accumulation is the change or elimination of the processed carbs and sugars we eat.
One of the key concepts of the calories in and calories out concept is that while it might be possible to starve ourselves into weight loss, our body feels the stress of starvation and starts to preserve calories at any cost. This saving of calories in the body means our metabolism slows down. Starvation is not a sustainable process, and worse, when people do start to eat more after losing weight, they will often gain it back, plus additional fat.
This is known as yo-yo dieting. Again, looking at the Biggest Loser Television show, most contestants end up regaining the weight, and many gain even more weight after the show ens.
The comedian Adam Conover in his show Adam Ruins Everything paints a humors, if stark, picture of what happens on the Biggest Loser and helps to quickly undermine many of the common-sense weight-loss beliefs.
Yet, even Conover misses a crucial point and that is the types of foods we eat make a difference in the short and long run for our metabolisms.
Thinking Like a Caveman
One of the successes of evolutionary theory is that we can often use the theory to make predictions on how life should work, and then test those concepts.
Humans have been a successful species precisely because we can hunt, gather, and eat an enormous range of foods. Studies of early semi-settled peoples in the Mesopotamia region of Ur ate at least 160 different types of plants, and at least two dozen types of animal foods including fish, birds, ruminants, and small game. But we also know is that easily digestible grains and sugars were not a big part of the diet. While the early peoples of Mesopotamia were the founders of grain production, they only tinkered with it for thousands of years before becoming the world’s first civilized states. It is even speculated that the first barely producers only grew grains in easy locations to brew beer.
Thinking about how pre-civilized people lived and ate is a useful heuristic for modern humans to make eating choices that we are most evolved to eat.
Harvard economist James C. Scott in his book Against the Grain explains that the bones of the first grain farmers showed extremely poor nutrition. This was mainly due to a diet that no longer contained the varied meats and vegetables that are common to hunting and gathering tribes. Civilization, as the archeological record shows was bad for our health.
We know to this day, that an over-reliance on starchy grains and sugars causes diseases, stunted grown, and tooth decay.
A useful rule of thumb is to think about foods that would have been eaten by our caveman ancestors. This trick allows most people to avoid foods high in carbs and sugars. This is why the Paleo Diet has become popular in the past decade.
But there is more to eating than just diet, one reason the metabolism slows down is due to a lack of protein and animal fats. Protein is the building block for the human body, and unlike herbivores, we lack the basic gut and microbes to build proteins from most plant matter. A diet that is low in protein and calories, will lead to weight loss, but a significant amount of the weight loss is muscle, and this loss of lean muscle mass lowers our metabolism.
A shorter explanation is that if food is reduced in the diet, particularly if protein is lowered along with calories, our bodies panic and act as if they are being starved, because in a sense, they are.
The trick of cutting calories while keep metabolism raised is again presented by Gary Taubes in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories:
“We have thrifty metabolisms when are undernourished and so need to use efficiently every calorie we consume, and we have spendthrift metabolisms when we’re over-nourished, so as to avoid excessive weight gain and obesity. Our cells may have certain maximal or ideal capacity for metabolizing nutrients, but the amount that they actually metabolize is ultimately determined by the quantity and perhaps the quality of the nutrients delivered in the circulation. This determination is made on a cellular and hormonal level, not a cognitive or conscious one.”
In short, what Taube’s is arguing is that if our bodies are well-nourished with nourishing calories, our metabolisms will increase without storing the excess calories as fat. We burn those calories up in excess heat or more energy. But if we are starved of nutrients, our bodies will work hard to save the remains nutrients that it has in its system, and lower the metabolism.
All Diets Say the Same Thing
What is striking about modern eating habits in developed nations, is that nearly every diet that removes processed carbs and sugars shows quick weight loss in fat. Polar opposite diets such as veganism and carnivorism both show great short term results of fat loss, mostly because both require that processed carbs and sugars are removed.
What remains unclear is if it is possible for humans to lose weight even if they are consuming more calories than they are burning. But to conduct such a study would be impossible because the body adjusts its metabolism to food intake, and everybody is different.
Some people can handle eating processed carbs regularly without gaining fat, while others simply smell carbs and will gain fat. Our genetic makeup has an impact on how certain foods are stored as fat. But what is consistent, is that processed sugar and carbs will cause an overload of insulin. For some this makes them fat, for others this leads to diabetes, while others lose muscle mass. Even those capable of tolerating higher carbs and sugars, will die quickly eating only sugar. We know this because of records at sugar plantations in colonial times.
CuttlingCaloires.com is committed to chronicling the evidence and research. There is much we do not understand about the human body, and because it is a complex system, any results discovered will vary from person to person.
But there are lessons that can be gleaned from research and observation. Avoiding processed foods and carbs is an agreed starting point. The ways to avoid excess body fat accumulation and stay lean are nearly endless.